By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
It was very important to start the film as one that portrayed how big motherhood feels in society, how sacred and untouchable it is, and in certain ways, how it rules our lives – as women we’re trying to feed that unreachable goal of becoming this perfect caring human being.”
With its world premiere at Tribeca in 2022, with her debut feature Huesera: The Bone Woman, Mexican filmmaker Michelle Garza Cervera announced herself almost instantly as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. While maternal horror movies are nothing new and have a heritage given a recent boost with women-directed titles including Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), in Cervera’s hands the material feels almost born anew. This has much more to do with the contemporary Mexican context within which her story is placed; rather, through her compelling synthesis of folk horror, punk memoir, queer love story and good old-fashioned feminism, Huesera ultimately feels as refreshing as it does unsettling.
The film follows Valeria (Natalia Solián), a middle-class carpenter who finally succeeds in getting pregnant with her eager partner. Ticking the box on the next step to complete their conventionally happy life, Valeria discovers as the pregnancy progresses that things may not be as ideal as she had been led to believe. Through a nostalgic return to her younger life and, most spectacularly, the introduction of supernatural forces that manifest in the terrifying folkloric figure of La Huesera, Valeria is forced to explore her identity, her desires and her hopes for the future that lead her well outside the expected terrain of the conventional life she had built for herself.
Now in theaters and on VOD from 16th February, Michelle kindly took the time to speak to me about her extraordinary feature film debut.
A general question to start with if I may: why is horror such a potent tool for telling stories about motherhood?
I really feel like the genre allows us introspections and investigations about our daily lives in a way that is very powerful, because with very few images or sounds we can explain very complex concepts. There’s so much regarding our potential parenting (whether we’re parents or not) that is normalized – motherhood is attached to so many rules or social impositions that we cannot stop in a normal situation to question because it can become very uncomfortable. What I really love about horror is that it can be a really uncomfortable tool that manages to challenge imposed and normalized things. Regarding parenthood, there’s so much that is not said because you are talking about the life of another human being, so there’s a lot of guilt and judgement attached to it if we open up. I feel that it’s the silence that makes it more toxic and violent, and horror really allows you to have quick, fast images and sounds which acts as a kind of filtration for these questions or these challenges.
The opening of the film is so remarkable, I think I – like so many other people I know who have seen and loved the film as much as I do – were really hooked just by the sense of scale and awe in those opening moments.
It has a very special story. For us it was very important to start the film as one that portrayed how big motherhood feels in society, how sacred and untouchable it is, and in certain ways, how it rules our lives – as women we’re trying to feed that unreachable goal of becoming this perfect caring human being. It was clear ever since we started writing the film that we wanted to start it from that point. We were actually going to film it in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe which is this huge church in Mexico where the day of the Guadalupe is celebrated every year, but the pandemic made it impossible for us to shoot there which was such a bummer. For a long time, I was very sad about it, I really didn’t know how to replace that – it’s really impressive and there’s this feeling of procession towards this figure. We couldn’t film that opening scene during the original shooting weeks because the pandemic made it impossible, so I started an investigation after we finished filming of what could replace something as impactful as that. And you know what, Covid in that sense did help in a way that I feel that we found an image that was even stronger and even more clear for people that are from outside of Mexico and don’t know this church. I started googling and I found this beautiful huge statue which is about 2 hours away from Mexico City. I told the main actress Natalia Solián and she had been there recently and she and the cinematographer Nur Rubio Sherwell went there together – a very fun road trip – and we loved it and were completely impressed with this place called Chalma. It’s the Monumental de la Virgen De Guadalupe, it’s actually pretty new and was made in 2017 and is not so well known in Mexico.
I really connected with the way music and Valeria’s subcultural youth – her memories of it and her return to it – featured in her journey in the film. Was this punk/gothy background something personal to you? Were you in that scene growing up?
I grew up in the Mexican punk scene. I played in many bands and toured around my country and had the chance to have another band in London with three very close friends and one of our songs is in the film in the flashback scene. I really wanted to portray pieces of the life I inhabit personally in my city in my first film. I love punk music because it doesn’t come with a lot of expectations or pretensions – anyone can play it – and that’s really freedom-charged. But for me in my personal life, it also gave me a blanket through difficult periods, processing my family history. Punk was always there as a little family in many ways that actually challenged the nuclear family and gives you a sense of home that is different but very liberating. It was very important to me to give a character like Valeria that blanket that helps her go through the conflict she is experiencing in the film.
Were you into horror growing up?
When I was growing up both of my parents were furniture makers, my mom especially was into fantasy and creating fantastic worlds in her work – she was also into engraving and woodcut printing. I was very influenced by them, they were the kind of parents who would take me to exhibitions or to the cinema every weekend ever since I was very young. I started writing short stories when I was a little girl, and they always had fantasy or horrific elements to them. My favourite game was to make haunted houses with my friends. I was very inspired by those kinds of feelings; I was a fearful girl growing up, and I feel like I still am a little bit. I’m the kind of writer that can make connections between things that might not be connected, and I like to find those grounded aspects of my life and connect them to other, supernatural worlds. Horror is beautiful, and a very generous genre. It’s the specific genre I find best to express myself, and I don’t find myself doing something else to be honest.
The film deals with so many taboos in a way – that some women might not just be cut out for motherhood, and that pregnant women are still sexual creatures. Were these conscious things that you wanted to bring out into the light?
We really were focused on trying to break with very deep and ruthless concepts of what a “good woman” is supposed to be, and I feel like our lives, our bodies are completely defined by these social expectations. I was like “we have to try to break that”, because that’s very suffocating, there’s so much more complexity to women. I can’t believe that representation is still so limited for women – like people speaking about how motherhood gets rid of your sexuality, it’s so dumb! We were really preoccupied with giving another representation to challenge those attitudes. There’s a life tale that tells you that if you don’t follow this domestic or nuclear family plan, you’re going to be unhappy. And this concept of happiness really defines the life of women; many times we don’t stop to ask “what will make me happy?” I am not saying we shouldn’t be building a family, but why can’t we just stop and ask these questions… just deciding to go through the process of questioning these impositions is very liberating and should be necessary in many ways. I feel that silence and the fear of breaking out of those boxes tends to create violence or very toxic relationships.
To me it was important to portray a woman who had bought the pre-packaged idea of what was supposed to be the best life – this middle class, privileged life. I wanted to give her that box that even today seems like the right path to follow, but I wanted to challenge all that, making her go back to her past and seeing other women who have followed different paths.”
Valeria’s sexuality is really one of the cornerstones of the movie, and it’s so fascinating because it’s very rare to look at pregnant women as sexual beings that might ask the questions about themselves that Valeria does.
To me it was important to portray a woman who had bought the pre-packaged idea of what was supposed to be the best life – this middle class, privileged life. I wanted to give her that box that even today seems like the right path to follow, but I wanted to challenge all that, making her go back to her past and seeing other women who have followed different paths. I really wanted to give Valeria these blankets, because in so many films we see flawed characters who have such loneliness attached to them and there’s no alternative, no escape. It was very important to have this queer aspect to her, that she knows is there…deep down she knows, and it makes her go back. To me it was really beautiful to show this.
Through the figure of the bone woman, the film feels like it has a very deep folkloric core. How do you best describe this to people outside of the culture who may not be familiar with the specifics you are engaging with?
It’s a story not so well known as La Llorona, and most of the people I know don’t know about it. I found it when I was mourning the death of my mother. I got a book from a friend called Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, which has an analysis of this tale that I really loved. It speaks about going through a therapy process – it doesn’t have to be therapy itself – but going through this horrible and painful process that we have to submit ourselves to in order to learn stuff from ourselves that we don’t want to look at rooted in our past or family relationships. Going through that process gives light to this very profound and healthy questioning of yourself, raising things you want to question about your own life. That tale is very beautiful; it literally portrays an elderly woman in a desert, a very arid and dry and hot place, who through a long process puts this skeleton together, and through a fire ritual gives life to this entity and sets it free. I really wanted to keep that tale at the heart of Huesera, and I of course added the bones and the bone cracking to it myself. But for the film I really just kept the heart of the story, and we built a whole entity for the character herself.
The film is so very well cast – Natalia Solián really carries so much of the film’s weight, but other actors too.
When I started I was very worried because I was like “oh my god for a first film and a horror movie it’s hard to find good actors that take risks”, and we also had a limited budget. But we had a script we had worked on for a long time, so when we started approaching actors we knew the script was in a good place – it was solid, and they felt they could trust us. We also had a great casting director Rocío Belmont (she’s actually one of the witches in the ritual scene), and she was very connected to the story and the project which really helped out a lot. Even the extras director was amazing, he really understood the worlds within the film – every face was picked for a reason. Working on the table reads with all the actors was beautiful, there’s backstories everywhere. There could be so many spin-offs of Huesera! There was a lot built that is not in the film, but I think you can still see it and feel it, and that comes with the fact that I got lucky that I found a cast that really emotionally connected to the project itself. They were faithful, and i am always going to be grateful to them.
While they are not on screen much, the matriarchs that guide Valeria on her strange journey that provides the film’s extraordinary climax are real show-stealers. Can you tell me about the ideas behind these characters, where they sit socially and how you conceived them in terms of both power and gender?
It was very important to portray the kinds of women who had been through this breaking down process and that they had found ways to reconstruct themselves. To give this blanket the same way as punk to Valeria was very important to me – these women who have been to Hell, and they are going to be there with you to help you go through this painful process. It didn’t have to specifically be witches; I wanted to give that specific ritual to the film, but they are really inspired by women in my life that have been that figure for me. Even the casting director Rocío Belmont, she was that for me throughout the process of creating my first feature, so that’s how I convinced her to be one of them! It was very emotional, the three of them were working from such emotional places that had to do with the conflict and themes of the film. For example, one of the other witches was a big actress, a sex symbol in Mexico in the 1970s. It’s crazy to see how at a certain age actresses stop being called anymore because they are not seen as sexual beings or as attractive as before. At a certain age, actresses don’t get sexual scenes. And beyond actresses themselves, there’s a social thing that wants to de-attach our sexuality from us after a certain age, because of motherhood. There were so many things we talked about during readings of the script, and the three of them were so generous, and it made those scenes very spiritual to film. They surrounded Natalia, and she was in a heightened, delicate state through that scene – the whole filming that day really felt very sacred. It was one of my favourite days to shoot.
I think I literally gasped out loud when I saw that you were attached to a forthcoming film adaptation of Mariana Enríquez’s Ese verano a oscuras – she is easily one of my favourite contemporary authors, and the combination of you and her together is pretty mind-blowing! Is there much you can tell me about that project at this stage, and more generally, how would you explain to someone outside of the region who Enríquez is and why she is such a big deal!
I love that you are a reader of Mariana Enríquez, she’s great! I had the chance to meet her at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival; we went together to the H.R. Giger museum and it was one of the highlights of my life, definitely. She’s amazing, and it has to do with the fact that she creates horror that is very specific to Argentina and to Latin American ways of living that really hasn’t been done. Of course, there’s a lot of horror literature from this country, but she does it in a way that feels huge. It’s really terrifying, but at the same time there’s social commentary that is always complex. She’s not fearful at all of creating characters that are deeply flawed – she’s not scared of showing the darker sides of humanity, and that makes her narratives super special. She really accepts challenges, and she threatens a lot of imposed ideas of how we’re supposed to be in her analysis of very delicate subjects. I feel very honored that I have the chance to work on an adaptation of hers. It’s a beautiful coming of age story that speaks about that moment in life that the violence we see in films and TV coming from the US – specifically relating to serial killers in the US – where you understand that even this kind of romanticised violence can infiltrate your home and your life in very terrifying ways. It’s a very violent story, and I am adapting the story to Mexico City and I found a very strong connection between where her story is set in Argentina with a specific, historically legendary neighbourhood in Mexico City. I’m very happy to be working on that, I am a huge fan and to do what she does she really has to believe that the horror genre is not minor. She is really pushing to break horror out of a limited box. She is vast and she breaks so many rules and she is very challenging. As you can see, I am very happy with this upcoming project that we’re already writing!
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a contributing editor to Film International, is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who frequently contributes to Fangoria and has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.